Dunloy are Antrim hurling kingpins again after eight-year wait
GREGORY O’Kane was fighting back the tears at the end. The Dunloy manager was mauled by well-wishers from all angles – each of them bear hugs.
But the warmest, gentlest embrace was reserved for his mother, Pauline O’Kane, who appeared out of the crowd.
All that mattered in this world was captured in those few precious moments between a mother and son.
Seconds later, his five children and the manager’s wife, Una, were hanging off him.
After eight long, insufferable years, the Cuchullain’s club were crowned county champions again to round off an incredible season.
This was a special day for everyone associated with the north Antrim club.
Earlier in the day, the club’s minors skated to a third county title in-a-row, while their U21s are reigning county champions.
“We live for this,” beamed O’Kane, seconds after the final whistle.
“You’ve your life and you’ve your family and they’re precious and then you have your sport, which is unbelievable.
“Days like this are precious. It gives the people something to hold onto, and the kids.
“On Friday morning my kids had their faces painted green going to school and my wife is steeped in GAA and she’s down at the pitch like the rest of us.”
Still being congratulated throughout this post-match interview, O’Kane added: “Hunger: we invented hunger today because we wanted this so much.”
After trailing 0-7 to 0-4 at the interval, Dunloy produced an incredible second half display of pace, power and accuracy to earn a virtual shutout.
Their rivals and championship favourites had no answer.
And don’t let Cushendall’s two late goals – in the 58th and 63rd minutes – fool anyone.
They merely put some undeserved polish on the scoreboard at the end.
Long before the final whistle, Philip Campbell’s side had imploded.
Neil McManus was red-carded after an off-the-ball incident with county team-mate Conor McKinley on 47 minutes and Eunan McKillop was sent off in stoppage-time.
Cushendall’s two red cards had no bearing on the outcome of yesterday’s final.
The 2015 champions were flailing as soon as the second half got underway.
And yet, it looked as though the more experienced Ruairi Og side had the measure of this young Dunloy team in the opening half.
For most of the first half, Cushendall defenders Martin Burke, Sean Delargy and Ryan McCambridge seemed to have Dunloy’s fleet-footed attackers Eoin O’Neill, Nigel Elliott, Keelan Molloy (right, with Aidan McNaughton) and Conal Cunning under control.
Dunloy hit six confidence-sapping wides in a scrappy opening half hour while McManus (0-3 frees), Paddy McGill and the lively Fergus McCambridge (0-2) kept the scoreboard ticking over to fashion a three-point advantage for Cushendall.
But nobody expected what unfolded in a dramatic second half. Cushendall were hit by a tsunami of sparkling hurling.
Within six minutes of the restart, Dunloy had crept ahead by a point, thanks to man-of-the-match Paul Shiels’ dead-eyed accuracy from placed balls.
Indeed, O’Kane’s young charges out-scored Cushendall 2-8 to 0-1 within 16 minutes of the second period.
The two killer goals came in quick succession.
Young Conal Cunning pounced on a loose ball to fire home in the 44th minute and two minutes later it was game over when Nigel Elliott drifted in on the blind side of the Cushendall defence to ripple the net again.
Despite late Cushendall majors from Conor Carson and Paddy Burke, Dunloy were already out of sight.
“I don’t know where to start,” said a shell-shocked Cushendall selector Karl McKeegan afterwards.
“We worked hard in the first half and we expected the same in the second half but we missed a free [in the 44th minute that would have cut Dunloy’s lead to three] and then they got a score.
“They started using the space well. They have good forwards and we knew that…
“We just lost our shape and, fair play to Dunloy, they kept hitting us. We probably needed somebody to go down and break up their rhythm but they were sharp and they got the right ball into their forwards and they hurt us.
“Dunloy hadn’t won it in eight years and you could see the hunger they had. We tried to drum that into our players in the build-up to the game but we can have no complaints.”
Dunloy, who face Ulster champions Slaughtneil in their provincial semi-final on October 8, have some special hurlers in their ranks.
Attackers Keelan Molloy, Eoin O’Neill and Conal Cunning were fearless yesterday.
The longer the game went on the more space they found. Every time they gained possession it finished in a score in a blistering second half.
“When you’re 19 or 20 years of age championship finals mean nothing to you – it’s a game of hurling,” said O’Kane. “They play with a smile on their face.”
Nigel Elliott was equally dangerous in Dunloy’s razor-sharp attack – but their half-back line was impenetrable yesterday, while full-back and captain James McKeague didn’t put a foot wrong all afternoon.
But the pick of the bunch was Shiels who ruled midfield and played some sumptuous passes into his forward line.
Tactically, Dunloy’s plans were much clearer than Cushendall’s. They got the ball into their forwards quickly and they used every inch of width of the pitch in Ballycastle.
Cushendall, by contrast, tried to play a shorter game and lacked their usual smoothness in moving the ball up field.
“We’ve been working four years with this group and every year we were getting better and better,” said O’Kane.
“Somebody said one time: ‘It takes four years to prepare for the Olympics’. That’s how long it has taken us.
“Loughgiel and Cushendall were streets ahead of us but we’ve been building and building.
“We got some of the minor group up from last year and these boys can play, they’re athletes as well.
“A few people around the club built an academy and that young group you see out there today were reared in the academy.
“The club has a story to tell there, with its infrastructure and a few players I played with are now putting their time back into coaching, and that’s the key. The club is a fantastic place.”
There will be some sore heads in the north Antrim village this morning before the seniors get ready to face Slaughtneil in a couple of weeks’ time.
Dunloy: R Elliott; P Duffin, J McKeague, O Quinn; K McKeague, C McKinley, Kevin Molloy; C Elliott, P Shiels (0-7, 0-6 frees, 0-1 65); Keelan Molloy (0-2), G McTaggart, N Elliott (1-2); E O’Neill (0-2), C Brogan, C Cunning (1-1). Subs: E Smyth for Quinn (15), N McKeague for Brogan (h-t), A Dooey (0-1) for McTaggart (54).
Cushendall: E Gillan; R McCambridge, M Burke, S Delargy; A Graffin, P Burke (1-0), D Kearney; E Campbell (0-1), A McNaughton; C Carson (1-2), N McManus (0-3 frees), D McNaughton; F McCambridge (0-2), S McAfee, P McGill (0-1). Subs: C McClafferty for D McNaughton (h/t), E Laverty for Campbell (48), E McKillop for McAfee (48), R Delargy for McGill (57).
Yellow cards: D McNaughton (30)
Red cards: N McManus (47), E McKillop (63)
Referee: M O’Neill (Armoy)